In the Cordillera region of the Philippines, Igorot mix martial arts (MMA) fighters have made a mark on the global stage. These fighters didn't just dominate their local arenas; they became world champions in ONE Championship. In this article, we'll look at the stories of five impressive athletes, each forging their path to glory. From the early pioneers to the current titans, their journeys are nothing short of amazing.
Let's step into the ring and witness the triumphs of these Igorot warriors who have left their mark in MMA history.
List of Igorot MMA World Champions
Let's dive into the stories of five Igorot MMA fighters who became world champions in ONE Championship. Keep in mind, the order doesn't matter; each fighter's journey is unique. These warriors, from the tough terrains of the Cordillera region, have earned their spot in MMA history through skill and determination. Let's explore their remarkable journeys, one by one.
1. Honorio "The Rock" Banario
Honorio "The Rock" Banario, the first Igorot and Filipino ONE Featherweight World Champion, embodies tenacity and perseverance in the face of adversity.
From a tough upbringing marked by poverty, Banario found solace in martial arts at 16. Fueled by a desire to overcome bullies, boost self-esteem, and avoid vices, he embarked on a journey that catapulted him to international fame.
Banario, hailing from Mankayan, Benguet, earned a wushu scholarship at the Cordillera Career Development College in Baguio, securing victories in national tournaments. Despite initially competing against Team Lakay, an invitation to train with them under head coach Mark Sangiao proved pivotal.
Under Sangiao's guidance, Banario flourished, winning six consecutive bouts, including a Filipino championship, solidifying his status as one of the team's premier mixed martial artists.
Triumph in ONE Championship
Banario's crowning achievement came in ONE Championship when he stopped the previously unbeaten Eric "The Natural" Kelly, another Igorot and former teammate, in the fourth round, securing the inaugural ONE Featherweight World Championship.
Strategic Move to Lightweight
Facing setbacks and losing his title, Banario made a strategic move to the lightweight division. This calculated decision paid dividends as he navigated through tough opponents, showcasing impressive victories and re-emerging as a top contender.
Roots and Family Legacy
Honorio is the son of Dario Banario Sr., the current mayor of Mankayan, Benguet. He shares his passion for MMA with his siblings, Dario Banario Jr. and Harold "The Artist" Banario, both accomplished fighters. The Banario siblings are not only gifted in the martial arts but also in painting, with Harold excelling in this artistic pursuit.
Honorio "The Rock" Banario's journey stands as a testament to resilience, illustrating how strong family roots, coupled with a great coach and team under Sangiao and Team Lakay, can transform a young fighter from humble beginnings into the very first Igorot and Filipino ONE Champion on the global MMA stage.
2. Kevin "The Silencer" Belingon
Kevin "The Silencer" Belingon, a former ONE Bantamweight World Champion, hails from Kiangan, a town in the Ifugao province of the Philippines, known more for its rice farmers than combat sports athletes. But Belingon's journey to martial arts greatness is quite exceptional, and he's not just known for his skills.
Inspired by Bruce Lee, Belingon started training and proved so talented that he earned a wushu scholarship to the University of the Cordilleras, leading him to move to Baguio.
Under the guidance of renowned Filipino coach Mark Sangiao at Team Lakay, Belingon honed his wushu skills. Transitioning to professional mixed martial arts in 2007, he swiftly won his first nine bouts, claiming a local flyweight title and drawing attention from ONE Championship, which signed him in 2012.
Even though he holds a degree in Criminology, Belingon decided to put aside a potential career in law enforcement to fully dedicate himself to being a martial artist.
Rise in ONE Championship
"The Silencer" wowed everyone in the ONE cage with amazing performances, especially some spectacular finishes. In 2016, he got a shot at the ONE Bantamweight World Champion, Bibiano Fernandes. He didn't win that time, but Belingon used it as fuel to improve and grow as a martial artist.
Undisputed Champion and Iconic Style
After that setback, Belingon went on a winning spree. He beat top contenders, grabbed the ONE Interim Bantamweight World Title, and then, in a rematch, took down Fernandes to become the undisputed king of the division.
Kevin "The Silencer" Belingon is not just known for his skills but also his iconic mullet hairstyle, making him easily recognizable in the cage. His story is about resilience, showing how a guy from an unusual background, with a distinctive style, can become a big deal in the world of mixed martial arts.
3. Geje "Gravity" Eustaquio
Geje "Gravity" Eustaquio, the former ONE Flyweight World Champion, hones his skills at the renowned Team Lakay, standing among the best martial artists in the Philippines today. His journey is a testament to the pursuit of dreams and relentless determination.
Starting kickboxing at 14, Eustaquio swiftly transitioned to wushu, earning an invitation to join the Philippines national team. This led to a wushu scholarship at the University of the Cordilleras, where he not only graduated with a Master's Degree in Physical Education but also a Bachelor's Degree in Education.
Transition from Teaching to the Cage
After leaving school, Eustaquio took on a career as a teacher. However, the call for action echoed louder, compelling him to quit teaching and chase his martial arts dreams. In 2011, he made a successful professional cage debut with a first-round TKO.
Rise in ONE Championship
In 2012, Eustaquio signed with ONE Championship, marking the beginning of an impressive journey. Despite an initial setback in his bid for the inaugural ONE Flyweight World Title against Adriano Moraes, Eustaquio remained unwavering in his pursuit of a world championship. Over the years, he showcased his skills in both flyweight and bantamweight divisions, establishing himself as a top competitor.
Undisputed Flyweight King
At ONE: GLOBAL SUPERHEROES, in front of his fellow countrymen in Manila, Eustaquio fulfilled his dreams. He defeated former titleholder Kairat Akhmetov for the ONE Interim Flyweight World Championship and later evened the score against Moraes to be crowned the undisputed flyweight king.
Trilogy Bout and Quest for Gold
In a historic trilogy bout, part of ONE Championship's first-ever trilogy, Eustaquio faced Moraes again. Although the decision went to Moraes, Eustaquio remains steadfast on his quest for World Title gold.
Geje "Gravity" Eustaquio's story is one of dedication and perseverance, illustrating how a teacher-turned-martial-artist can rise to the top of the flyweight division and continue the pursuit of excellence in the world of mixed martial arts.
4. Joshua "The Passion" Pacio
Joshua "The Passion" Pacio, a former five-time ONE Strawweight World Champion from Baguio City, Philippines, embodies the spirit of martial arts, a journey fueled by determination, resilience, and a love for the sport that started at a young age.
Inspired to take up martial arts at the age of 12, Pacio found success early, winning numerous national wushu tournaments in the Philippines before transitioning to mixed martial arts. Martial arts became his anchor during tough times growing up, especially when his father moved overseas to support the family when he was just 6 years old.
Overcoming Adversity and Independent Growth
Facing the challenge of being independent from a young age, Pacio's training toughened him, shaping him into a better person. Battling childhood obesity, martial arts played a pivotal role in shedding excess pounds, transforming him into the elite athlete he is today.
After an undefeated amateur career, Pacio seamlessly transitioned to the professional stage, boasting a 6-0 record before making his mark on the global stage of ONE Championship. Despite falling short in his first World Title bid against Yoshitaka Naito in 2016, Pacio drew inspiration from his superstar World Champion teammates at Team Lakay.
Ascension to Strawweight Throne
In September 2018, at the age of 22, Pacio's dreams materialized as he defeated Yoshitaka Naito via unanimous decision, securing the ONE Strawweight World Championship. This victory marked a significant milestone in his career, showcasing his prowess and determination. Although he faced a setback, losing the belt in his first defense against Yosuke Saruta, Pacio showcased his resilience by reclaiming the strap in an immediate rematch.
Additionally, Pacio's skills were recognized on a global scale as he won ONE Championship's Submission Of The Year in 2018 with his patented "Passion Lock." This accolade further underscored his excellence in the cage, adding to the narrative of his journey to becoming a world-class martial artist.
Consecutive Title Defenses and Temporary Setback
Pacio defended the ONE Strawweight World Championship three times, displaying his prowess in the cage. However, in December 2022, he faced a temporary setback, losing the gold to Jarred Brooks. While he may no longer wear the crown, history has shown that Joshua "The Passion" Pacio always comes back stronger.
Joshua Pacio's journey is a testament to the transformative power of martial arts, showcasing how a young boy's passion can evolve into a storied career, marked by triumphs, setbacks, and an unwavering spirit to rise again.
5. Eduard "Landslide" Folayang
Eduard "Landslide" Folayang, the former ONE Lightweight MMA World Champion, carved his path to greatness through resilience and a relentless pursuit of a better life.
Born in Sadanga, Mountain Province, Folayang faced tragic circumstances, with five of his siblings succumbing to illness. Despite the hardships, his parents, recognizing the value of education, ensured that their surviving children received schooling. To alleviate the family's burden, Folayang turned to martial arts, unknowingly unlocking extraordinary opportunities.
Journey from Poverty to National Hero
Receiving a scholarship to the University of the Cordilleras, Folayang joined the Philippines Wushu Team, earning several gold medals and becoming a national hero. Transitioning to MMA under the guidance of Mark Sangiao at Team Lakay, he captured the Filipino Welterweight Championship in his June 2007 debut.
Rise to Prominence in ONE Championship
Folayang's star ascended in the Singaporean promotion Martial Combat, leading to a main event spot at ONE Championship's inaugural show in September 2011. In a historic moment, five years later, he returned to Singapore to headline ONE: DEFENDING HONOR, knocking out reigning champion Shinya Aoki to claim the ONE Lightweight MMA World Title.
Superstar Recognition and Title Defenses
After successfully defending his belt against Ev Ting, Folayang earned praise from his childhood hero Manny Pacquiao, solidifying his status as "one of the legends of mixed martial arts in the Philippines" and considered the face of Philippine MMA. Despite losing the belt to Martin Nguyen in 2017, "Landslide" stormed back with three consecutive wins over top contenders, reclaiming the ONE Lightweight MMA World Title in front of a fervent Manila crowd at ONE: CONQUEST OF CHAMPIONS.
Toughest Challenges and Resilient Comeback
Folayang faced setbacks, losing the belt to Shinya Aoki in 2019 and enduring the toughest losing streak of his career. Taking a break and training at the renowned Jackson Wink MMA Academy in the United States, he emerged stronger, breaking the five-fight losing streak and securing a victory against Amir Khan.
Eduard "Landslide" Folayang's journey exemplifies the indomitable spirit that transforms adversity into triumph, from the impoverished beginnings in Sadanga to becoming a national hero, a two-time ONE Lightweight MMA World Champion, and the face of Philippine MMA in the global MMA arena.
1. Eric "The Natural" Kelly
Hailing from Baguio City, Filipino Featherweight Champion Eric Kelly stands as one of the Philippines' most accomplished martial artists, proudly representing the Igorot people. His journey in martial arts began at the age of 19 when he delved into wushu, showcasing innate talent by securing gold in the striking art at the Southeast Asian Games. However, a setback occurred as Kelly suffered an injury, resulting in the loss of his position on the Philippine national wushu team and pushing him into a phase of taking odd jobs to sustain himself.
Discovering Mixed Martial Arts
It was during this challenging period that Kelly found his true calling, introduced to the world of mixed martial arts by friends. Reigniting his passion for martial arts, Kelly embarked on his professional career, dominating the domestic scene in the Philippines before making his debut on the global stage at ONE Championship's inaugural event in 2011.
A Remarkable Comeback
Boasting an impressive 9-0 record, Kelly earned a shot at the ONE Featherweight World Title. Unfortunately, he faced the first defeat of his career when he couldn't continue against Honorio Banario due to an eye injury. Taking a hiatus to recover, Kelly made a sensational comeback in 2014, securing a remarkable submission victory over Rob Lisita. This triumphant return earned him a US$50,000 warrior bonus, solidifying his position as a top contender in ONE's fiercely competitive featherweight division.
Legacy of Inspiration
Eric "The Natural" Kelly leaves a lasting legacy in the world of mixed martial arts. His journey, marked by determination, resilience, and an unwavering spirit, serves as an inspiration for aspiring fighters. With his contributions to the sport, Kelly has become a revered figure, adding to the rich tapestry of martial arts history.
2. Crisanto "The Slugger" Pitpitunge
Crisanto "The Slugger" Pitpitunge stands as a prominent Filipino mixed martial artist (MMA), making a significant impact in the bantamweight division of the Brave Combat Federation. Renowned for his powerful striking and aggressive fighting style, Pitpitunge's journey in the cage is a testament to determination, resilience, and a commitment to excellence.
A Champion's Pedigree
Hailing from Kapangan, Benguet, Pitpitunge gained prominence as the former Pacific X-treme Combat (PXC) bantamweight champion. His achievements in the PXC showcased not only his skill but also his ability to navigate the competitive landscape of MMA.
The Power of Discipline
Born on December 28, 1986, Pitpitunge's early life was marked by financial challenges, with his family struggling to afford even a single meal a day. However, the adversity fueled his determination, leading him to pursue a career in MMA. It was under the guidance of Team Lakay head coach Mark Sangiao that Pitpitunge's journey in mixed martial arts began, instilling in him a high level of discipline that transcended the cage.
A Scholar and Protector
Balancing the rigors of the cage with academic pursuits, Pitpitunge is a graduate in Criminology from the University of Cordilleras in Baguio City. Beyond his exploits in the MMA arena, he serves as a dedicated police officer, embodying the ideals of protection and service.
Brave 10: The Kingdom Rises
One of the significant chapters in Pitpitunge's career was his participation in "Brave 10: The Kingdom Rises." This marked not just a competition in the bantamweight division but a groundbreaking moment as Pitpitunge became the first Filipino fighter to showcase his skills on Jordanian soil.
From Humble Beginnings to Global Recognition
Pitpitunge's journey from a challenging upbringing to standing tall on the global MMA stage exemplifies the transformative power of dedication and passion. His story resonates beyond the cage, symbolizing the triumph of the human spirit against adversity.
Crisanto "The Slugger" Pitpitunge's life and achievements paint a picture of a fighter who not only conquers opponents in the cage but also overcomes life's challenges with unwavering determination.
3. Stephen "The Sniper" Loman
Stephen "The Sniper" Loman stands tall as a five-time MMA Champion, representing the illustrious Team Lakay gym in Baguio City, Philippines. With roots tracing back to the mountainous terrains of Mountain Province and Ifugao, Loman's journey in martial arts is rooted in the rich tradition of the renowned gym in Baguio City. Team Lakay, known for producing top-tier fighters, played a pivotal role in shaping "The Sniper's" skills and mentality.
Brave FC Triumph
In 2017, Loman etched his name in the annals of MMA history by becoming the inaugural and five-time Brave CF Bantamweight Champion. The Brave FC tournament in Bahrain witnessed his victory over Gurdarshan "Saint Lion" Mangat, showcasing not just his skills but the mettle required for championship glory.
Dominance in ONE Championship
After successfully defending his Brave FC belt four times, Loman transitioned to ONE Championship, the world's largest martial arts organization. His debut in December 2021 saw a spectacular knockout victory over Dagestani grappling sensation Yusup Saadulaev, setting the stage for his impressive journey in the promotion.
"The Sniper's" arrival in ONE Championship wasn't just a debut; it was a statement. In a remarkable showcase of skill and determination, Loman faced former Shooto Bantamweight Champion Shoko Sato, securing another victory that solidified his status as a force to be reckoned with in the bantamweight division.
A Pinnacle Moment
The pinnacle of Loman's career came in November 2022, as he stepped into the cage against Bibiano Fernandes. Fernandes, an 11-time ONE Bantamweight MMA World Champion and the longest-reigning titleholder in the promotion's history, faced an unrelenting "Sniper" who dominated the three-round bout, securing a unanimous decision and etching his name among the legends.
Stephen "The Sniper" Loman's journey is a testament to the synergy of skill, discipline, and unyielding determination. As he continues to make strides in the bantamweight division, his story adds another chapter to the legacy of Team Lakay and the Filipino fighters who conquer the global MMA stage.
In the Cordillera region of the Philippines, the legacy of Igorot MMA fighters, including those who originated from Team Lakay and those who ventured into Lions Nation MMA, shines brightly on the global stage. The journeys of these remarkable athletes, from the early pioneers to the current titans, are stories of resilience, determination, and unwavering passion for the art of mixed martial arts.
Honorio "The Rock" Banario, the trailblazer, overcame a challenging upbringing to become the first Igorot and Filipino ONE Featherweight World Champion. His strategic move to the lightweight division and family legacy showcase the profound impact of his journey.
Kevin "The Silencer" Belingon, hailing from the rice fields of Kiangan, Ifugao, rose to become a former ONE Bantamweight World Champion. His story exemplifies not only martial arts excellence but also the ability to rise from setbacks, proving that an individual from an unusual background can become a force in the MMA world.
Geje "Gravity" Eustaquio, a former ONE Flyweight World Champion, transitioned from teaching to the cage, fulfilling his dreams and showcasing his skills in both flyweight and bantamweight divisions. His quest for World Title gold continues, a testament to his unwavering determination.
Joshua "The Passion" Pacio, the five-time ONE Strawweight World Champion, embodies the transformative power of martial arts. Overcoming childhood challenges and setbacks, Pacio's story is one of triumphs, setbacks, and an unyielding spirit to rise again.
Eduard "Landslide" Folayang, the former ONE Lightweight MMA World Champion, carved his path from Sadanga, Mountain Province, to becoming a national hero. His journey, marked by ups and downs, resilience, and a relentless pursuit of a better life, stands as an inspiration.
Eric "The Natural" Kelly, Crisanto "The Slugger" Pitpitunge, and Stephen "The Sniper" Loman, each with their unique paths, add depth to the narrative, underlining the diversity of journeys that lead fighters to the global MMA arena.
In the world of Igorot warriors, whether part of Lions Nation MMA or Team Lakay, these fighters have made a lasting impact. They aren't just skilled in the ring; they're also an inspiration for those who dream of stepping into the MMA arena. Their hard work, discipline, and unyielding determination show that anyone can overcome tough challenges and make a mark in the world of mixed martial arts. The stories of these Igorot champions, combined with the significant contributions of Lions Nation MMA and the lasting legacy of Team Lakay, continue to evolve, adding new chapters to the history of Filipino fighters dominating the global MMA stage.